Thursday, December 31, 2009

Used Car Shopping, Day One

I went shopping for a car for the first time ever today!  (OK, the first time ever to buy a car for me, but it's still exciting).  I took my little brother along with me; he trained to be a mechanic for a while, and cars are his hobby.  I tested, in order:

An 07 Honda Element -  verdict: If I want to drive something that feels like a big, stiff, bumpy truck, I'll get a Dodge Dually and have something that can do real work.

An 08 Honda Accord - verdict: virtuous, but boring.  It had a pretty low trim level though; I might look for something higher.

An 08 Acura TSX - verdict: good.  Smooth ride, seat and steering wheel fit well, headroom felt a little cramped, but my 6'1' brother fit just fine, so it's a feeling, not a reality.

An 05 Acura RSX  - verdict: better.  The best fit I drove all say in terms of seat and steering wheel.  A bit more road noise than the TSX, but the model I was driving was kind of a junker; I'm looking forward to finding one that has been better maintained.

An 08 Honda S2000 - verdict: a poorly maintained death trap, but cute.  The one I tested was red, with some of the body panels replaced with a black racing material.  The seat belt warning dinged at me for my entire test drive, which was quite amusing.  According to my little brother, all signs pointed to the previous owner having left it out in the rain with the top down.

An 06 Infinity G35 - verdict: drove nicely, and decent comfort level.  Liked the Acuras better, but want to take a longer look at their model lines, depending on pricing.

Shopping for a new car sure is fun!  Especially since I plan to have my cousin (who used to sell cars and mobile homes) do all the negotiation. 

Monday, December 28, 2009

Homemade Detergent, How Much Do You Save and is it Worth It?

In August, I made my own detergent for the first time.  After lobbing half a bucket of kitty litter's worth of detergent into my washing machine, I ran out in the middle of November.  I had every intention of making more detergent that weekend, but then I got lazy.  And then XTRA detergent was on sale for $1.99 a bottle, so I decided to try it.  If you haven't see it at the store, it looks like this:

As I still had half the box of washing soda left over from the last batch, though, I figured I had to make at least one more batch.  This time I decided to try Recipe #9, which is a dry recipe, in the hopes that it would dissolve (I have a front load washer, with a little cup for detergent, but the first recipe did not dissolve in it, I had to chunk it directly in).  I made a 1/8 sized batch where I pretty much followed her recipe (using Ivory rather than Fels-Naptha because I can buy the former locally), but didn't have any baking soda, so I omitted it, and it dissolved really well.  Then I bought some baking soda, and added it in, and there seemed to be more residue left behind.  So I only put two cups of baking soda into the 1/2 recipe batch I made to use up all the rest of the washing soda.
Cost: Washing Soda - $4.23, Borax - $3.00, Baking Soda - $0.58, Ivory Soap - $1.19   Total = $9

I'm using 1/8 cup per load, so figure about 128 loads, for a minuscule amount more than  $0.07 per load.  This is way cheaper than my last batch, where I estimated that each load cost about $0.16, mostly because Ivory is cheaper than Irish Spring, which I used last time because it was what was lying around and because I can't find washing soda locally, so it is my most expensive ingredient, and there's a smaller proportion of it in this recipe.

For comparison, the XTRA detergent claims 28 loads (although really it's probably more like 25 because it is hard to measure exactly), and cost 1.99 + tax = $2.15, so each load costs me slightly more than $0.075.  But it was on sale for 1/2 off, so each load would usually cost (3.99 + tax = $4.31 / 28 =) slightly more than $0.15 per load.  That's 2.5 times as much.  Figure I do six loads of laundry a week (I work on a farm), this homemade detergent is $21.93 annually, XTRA on sale is $23.96 annually, XTRA regular price is $48.03 annually, last time's detergent is $49.92 a year, and Arm and Hammer (what I bought at the beginning of the detergent odyssey) is $62.70 annually.  So I am saving $40.77 a year vs unthinking laundry purchases, but only $2.03 vs bargain detergent on sale.

This doesn't count the Major Frugal Fail I made with regards to the container. I wanted something smaller than the kitty litter box I used last time,so I went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond and bought a cute little airtight container with a pop-off top, which cost me $7.77, making the real cost of each load $0.13 each unless I can amortize the container over multiple batches of detergent.  Some times I think that Debt Ninja is right to say that men are more naturally frugal than women; I bet most men would have used whatever container was handy.
So the real question is - is it worth it?  As far as quality goes, I could not discern a difference between the last batch and a commercial detergent, and my three test loads seem to indicate that the new batch will perform equally well.  So then it's just a matter of how much time it takes, which is probably an hour or so per batch.  It takes about 5 minutes to mix up the dry batch; the rest of the time is spent tracking down and purchasing the ingredients.  I'll probably need to make about three batches a year, so that's about three hours, paying me $13.59 an hour to make my own detergent verses unthinkingly buying the brand I always use or $8.70 an hour versus buying bargain laundry detergent.  This is worth it to me.  (Remember that saving money this way is like "earning" money tax free, as goods are paid for using hard-earned after tax dollars.  So I am calculating based on what I consider my time worth after taxes are deducted).

I could also stock up on bargain laundry detergent when it goes on sale and save about the same amount every year.  I am not sure how much time this would take; it would depend on the frequency that bargain detergent goes on sale.  My impression is that it goes on sale pretty regularly (this week, for instance, Walgreens brand detergent is on sale for $0.07 per load in my area), so I'm guessing this could also be done in about three hours a year, or less if I had enough storage space to buy it just once or twice annually.

So I just have to decide if I'd rather spend my time shopping for deals on detergent or making it myself.  The one thing I am sure of is that I'm not going to pick up premium detergent unthinkingly again.  Which would you prefer?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Welcome Life as a Purse

Thanks to SS4BC for pointing me to Life as a Purse, a great new addition to the PF blogger community. Her goal is to pay for all her CC debt before going to grad school next fall; I'm betting for her.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Update on the Car Problem

My parents, with no prompting whatsoever, gave a me cheque today and told me to "buy whatever I wanted." So now all I have to do is decide what that is:) But I can definitely fully fund my Roth IRA for the year, so that makes me happy. And problem solved - it's nice to have such understanding parents. I don't know how people go thorough life without a supportive family - right now I'm so sick that it's all I can do to put one foot in front of the other, even with all the support I am given. It gives me some sense of why people want to have children, to give back some of the love and support that they have received in the only way that is possible, by passing it on to the next generation.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What if I don't want a new car?

Mr. Goat and I have been driving one car for years. It's a 2002 Honda Civic with ~107000 miles on it. It is the opposite of sexy, but it gets us where we want to go, reliably, except for the one time that the radiator busted on Christmas Day in Cut And Shoot, Texas (and that was two years ago).

Today is my birthday, and my parents excitedly announced that they were going to buy me a new car. I don't want another car, and I certainly don't want a new car. Just thinking about the depreciation entailed practically brings me to tears. Not to mention the anticipatory pain of the first ding, scratch, or Coke spill. And I don't need the extra expense of a second car either.

I tried to act happy about it, but I didn't do a very good job. They just wanted to do something nice for me and I was not a gracious recipient. So now I feel guilty too, which is silly, I know, but I hate the idea that they've been thinking about how happy I would be, and now they are disappointed.

I know that I'm not going to get any sympathy, but I was hoping for some advice. Should I try to turn down the car gracefully? Buy one and try to enjoy that my parents want me to be happy? Insist on the five year used Acura that I always thought I'd get when the Honda died rather than a new one? What would you do?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Last Minute Shopping - My Favorite Books of 2009

I thought I'd  do a list of some of my favorite books in 2009 as a suggestion to anyone looking for Christmas presents or a New Years resolution to read more.  
2009 is the year I discovered the author or series in question, so just because it is on this list does not mean that it is a recent publication .
Genre One: Fantasy
Book One of a series which imagines the Napoleonic Wars with dragons.  Told from the perspectives of a former Naval Captain and the dragon that fate thrusts into his lap, the author creates likeable, believable characters, even her background characters who show up for less than a chapter per book.   There are enough plot twists in the five published novels that they don’t get predictable – the author is good a creating problems that as a reader I didn’t see coming and then don’t immediately see an obvious solution to. 
Genre Two: Chick Paranormal.  Chick Paranormal is distinguished by the use of a strong female protagonist with paranormal powers (whether in a fantasy or reality setting) and some degree of romantic subplot.

Cry Wolf is a spin-off series from Patricia Brigg's Mercy Thompson series, which begins with Moon Called .  Charles, an ancient and powerful werewolf and the enforcer across all of America and Anna, a woman made werewolf against her will, have their wolf-selves declare themselves mated before they've known each other 24 hours.  Their human sides must deal with the emotional confusion this creastes, while thwarting enimies willing to exploit any weaknesses in their union between themselves or with their pack.  The loveable charecters that Briggs brings to life at your fingertips more than compensates for a slightly prosaic plot line (see also her Dragon Bones / Dragon Blood Hurog Duology for this kind of literary magic)
  In a world where magic and science move across reality in waves, Kate Daniels works as a mercenary in the remains of Atlanta, keeping to herself lest she endanger anyone else for she has taken an impossible mission upon herself, which is sure to end in pain and death for those and all she holds dear.  Unfortunately, she finds herself tangled up with the local were pack, where uneasy alliance soon turn to friendships and even possibly more.   Not perhaps a ground-breaking series, but a well written one; you might even read it again if you run out of unread books on a lazy weekend afternoon.

Another Spin-off series, this time from the Cassandra Palmer Series that begins with Touch the Dark    Dorina is dhampir, and her father is Dracula's brother.  Dracula, long since insane, but still very powerful, has broken out of his prison and needs to be stopped.  Dorina is talked into it by her father who leads her to believe that Dracula has a friend of hers.  Dorina is the straight man for a whole slew of fantastic characters who lead her around in circles while she tries to kick their asses until they give up useful information and several try to get into her pants.

Genre Three: Chick Paranormal Pornographic.  This subgenre of the chick paranormal genre maintains the tradition of the ass-kicking heroine with paranormal abilities, but brings a ton of X-rated sex scenes to the table (figure 15-25% of copy will be kinky sex scenes).

Riley Jenson is a werewolf who works in a government organization that protects people from those with supernatural powers.   Werewolves are oversexed paranormal creatures; during the full moon, a werewolf denied all other company will breed even with her worst enemy, or risk going mad.  This series allows you to enjoy the author's complete and graphic sexual imagination, a slight amount of emotional angst by the protagonist at her inability to find her true mate, and a great many bloody ass kickings handed out indiscriminately.   There's also a reasonable plot to give you a bit of a breather between all the sex.
Genre Four: Chick Mystery.  Also sometimes referred to as cozies, especially if the protagonist is into knitting, baking, or other womanly things.  The most cozy will feature recipes or craft designs mentioned in the book at the backof the book.

The least "cozy" of these mysteries, this book revolves around Izzy Duncan, who grew up in a family of private investigators and is pathologically unable to leave any mystery unturned.  Hilarious hijinks ensue as she attempts to follow her "suspects" around and figure out what is going on.  The first person narrative style is a nice change from the third person limited that mysteries usually foist on us.

Once  respectable accountant, Helen's divorce has left her on the lam in Florida, looking for places that will pay her off the books.  In her first two weeks at Juliana's, an exclusive woman's boutique, she discovers that her manager may be running drugs, hiring murders, and blackmailing most of the regular clientele.  When  her manager turns up dead, it i up to Helen to unravel the craziness that was her managers life and get to the bottom of her murder, before the local police decide that she's too intimately involved to be innocent.  A great strength of this book and the series is the way that life is breathed into even the smallest background characters, leaving you with a cast and crew of zany Floridians to enjoy again on a re-read.

Ivy Malone has noticed that women her age (she calls herself a LOL) are invisible to everyone around them.  She decides to use her new found superpower to investigate all the suspicious things that are going on in her small town.   Unfortunately for her, she stumbles on something a little bigger than vandalism, and the perpetrators are after her head.  Can she figure out what's going on in time?  Not recommended for non-Christians, as it is a bit Bible-heavy, which I enjoyed, but would not push on a friend lest she think that it was a backward attempt at conversion.

Genre Five: Christian Inspirational

I am not generally a fan of Debbie Macomber's fiction books, but I thought that she had some great perspectives here.  She offered a good mix of personal anecdotes, stories, and advice for those of us who are trying to figure out how to give back to the world the way God created us to.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by all that you would like to give, or if you are feeling that the giving well is running dry within you, I would recommend this book.

Genre Six: Cookbooks 

Intended for those of use who like to eat, rather than to cook, this book is full of inexpensive, healthier versions of your favorite take-out dishes.  It features Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Indian, and Deli foods, and several recipes have become my favorite.   I especially recommend the chili with mushrooms and the nachos made with baked tortillas.  I'm making myself hungry just thinking about this ...

The Gold Standard of basic cooking.  Your mother used Joy the way you will use this.  If don't have it, you want it.  And if you have a friend who is trying to learn how to cook, this is the perfect gift. 

 If you’re looking for that last minute present for a bookworm, I hope my list helps.  Keep in mind that Sunday  is the last day to get guaranteed Christmas delivery using Amazonstandard shipping rates, which run $3 a shipment and $0.99 a book.  Chose 4 books in the 4 for 3 paperback promotion, though and you’re still coming out on discounts and tax (or lack thereof)

For a big splurge present for yourself or anyone else, I recommend that you break down and get:

Amazon is offering it with free two day shipping, thus guaranteeing its arrival before Christmas.  I love my Kindle, and I'd have been delighted to get it as a present.  Even though I paid the old price for it, I've just about made up the cost in the lowered prices of almost all books (especially hardback bestsellers) and the free content (free e-books!) that Amazon hands out on occasion.  Plus I don't have to find storage space for the hundred book titles I have kicking around in it, which in a 900 square foot house is significant.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lending Club Offer - Get $40

Moneyfunk has signed up to get a loan from Lending Club.  This spurred me to take a look at the website again.  Last time I looked, I didn't meet the annual income/net worth requirement, so I couldn't invest.  This time, I still don't meet the requirements ($70K/$70K in most states), but I can lend up to $2500 anyway.  I decided to sign up - I figure even the reasonably low-risk loans will pay enough better than my savings account fees to be worth the risk.

Get $40 - If you too are thinking about investing at Lending Tree, post an email address in your comments and  I can "invite" you, thus giving you an extra $40 when you sign up.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

God doesn't want you to be perfect

In fact, as fallible human beings, he knows that we are incapable of perfection.  What he wants us to do, I believe, is the best that we can.  Then we we fail, we should pick ourselves up, ask forgiveness of Him and anyone else we have failed, and keep on trucking.  What he does not want us to do is think of all the ways that we are going to screw up, work ourselves into a puddle of guilt, and get nothing accomplished.  As long as we are doing our best and putting one foot in front of the other while trusting in Jesus Christ, we are doing our part, and we can trust Him to do His.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Your Children Will be Reading This Someday

The Wall Street Journal's De Gustibus column laments the rise of the wife-at-the-expense-of-the-husband tell-all memoir.  In particular, he complains about Cleaving, the new memoir out by the author of the very charming memoir Julie and Julia, Elizabeth Weil writing for the New York Times, and Tsing Loh's Mother on Fire.  I haven't read any of them, and I don't see why anyone would want to.  They appear to be the literary equivalent of reality television, which I also don't watch because it bores me to tears.

What I really don't understand, though, is why the women with children (in this case Ms. Loh and Ms. Weil) would do this to them.  The internet preserves everything for eternity, so in a few years Ms. Loh's children (and all their classmates) will be able to read that she "would not be able to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor [with whom she committed adultery] with the more suitable image of my husband" because of his sub par sexual ability.  Ms. Weil's daughters can read that she "never quite shook the feeling that my role in [her husband's] life was to be the steady, vanilla lay. We never discussed this. We just had a strenuously normal sex, year after year after year."  I know that children have to accept that their parents are sexual beings nowadays, but this just seems over the top. 

I don't have any children myself - I am basing this entirely on how I would have felt had I (and my peers) read such things about my parents in my teenage years, and what it would have done to my psyche.  Am I overreacting?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It is so cold here that the cats are cuddling up with the goats for warmth!

It is nothing but cold, rainy, and nasty here.  I am taking my sweetie out for his birthday tonight anyway, though!

Friday, December 11, 2009

This may not break the law, but it breaks all of Mr. Coopers 4 rules ...

plus the common sense one about intoxication and guns.

According to my local newspaper, though, it doesn't actually violate any laws.

I'm glad that Louisiana has lenient gun laws, but I sure wish idiots like this wouldn't give us all a bad name. Even if this video is funny as all get out.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why bother to save?

The Wall Street Journal has an article about 2 families that have abandoned their mortgages to rent in the same community that they once owned.  They've used the increases in their incomes to "buy season tickets to Disneyland, ... take a Carnival cruise to Mexico in March, ... and [one of them takes his] girlfriend out to dinner more frequently."  He also "kept his black BMW 6 Series coupe, which has payments of about $700 a month."

My first thought is that they are living in a fantasy land, but my second thought is that maybe I am.  When we're all in retirement, these people won't have any savings.  And they have every expectation that the government will finance their lifestyle with Social Security and Medicaid.  Since their current payments are being spent today, they'll have to "tax the rich" to fiance this system.  If I spend my lifetime saving frugally, I will probably be among "the rich,"  at least before I start to draw down my retirement savings.  So these grasshoppers will be clamoring to take all the food we ants have put by.  And current events give me every indication that government departments at every level will be happy to do so, and never understand why they are destroying the economy in the process.  Remind me why I'm being frugal again?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Update from Sgt. Shaffer

Sgt. Shaffer reports that she'll be handing out clothing to ~125 Afghan children next week.  It gives me the warm fuzzies to think that I was part of the effort, even though a small part.  I'm continuing to focus on giving what I can afford, not what I'd prefer if I had the money to do it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The perils of eating out

SS4BC has declared her 2010 challenge to be 345 days without eating out. It's a fantastic goal, and I'd make it my own, except that it would be cheating - I've aready pretty much stopped eating out myself.

Weight Watchers sells a book with the point values of various foods at various restaurants, or you can get the information on the internet if you subscribe to their web services.

It blew my mind how much of the stuff I ate at restaurants was twice the points as cooking it myself, with half the taste.  I already knew that they were twice the price, but that hadn't stopped me:)

To keep myself from the restaurants, I've had to learn to make what I crave.  For instance, I adore Chinese.  So I keep a pound of frozen chicken and two pounds of broccoli in my freezer at all times.  That way I can easily satisfy my stir-fry cravings any time I want them, and I'm not desperate to buy a pile of greasy food.  If I must go to a Chinese restaurant, I fill up on hot and sour soup.  It's one of my favorite things, it's 2 points a cup, and its cheap.  Even if you order two bowls of it, you're not shelling out like you are for the all you can eat buffet (in points and dollars).

My mom loves pizza.  She makes her own whole-wheat crust pizzas with roasted red pepper, Canadian bacon, and olives four at a time, then freezes the three she doesn't eat that evening.  Once you've eaten that for a while, I assure you that you don't want what Dominoes puts out even if it's available.

My favorite book for figuring out how to cook what I used to purchase is Weight Watchers Take-Out Tonight! : 150+ Restaurant Favorites to Make at Home--All 8 POINTS or Less.   It might be a diet cookbook, but the foods don't come out tasting diet.  And this is a cookbook aimed at those who don't particularly want to cook, we just want to eat.  Even if you aren't doing Weight Watchers and could care less about the point values of food, this book is worth a read.  It covers Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Italian, Greek, Japanese and Deli foods.  I mostly make things from the Chinese and Mexican sections, because they are my favorites, and almost every recipe I have tried from the book was delicious (and even the couple of misses were still OK).

Once you get the trick of it, you won't be giving up as much time cooking as you think you might.  By the time you drive to the restaurant, order, wait for your food, eat, and pay - well, it's not quick.  Even ordering in pizza takes some time; get a pre-made crust, tomato sauce, some light cheese, and the toppings of your choice and go to town - save yourself calories and money.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Orkin and The Samuel Vimes "Boots" Theory of Socieoeconomic Unfairness

In Terry Pratchett's Men at Arms, a character, Samuel Vimes, describes how the wealthy remain wealthier than the poor because they can afford items with a larger upfront cost and greater durability.  As Mr. Vimes says "A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet." (Pratchett, Terry, Men at Arms, 29, emphasis in original).  (If you've never read the series, you're missing out in a big way.  Skip the first two and start with Equal Rites, though).

I had a very similar experience with Orkin this week.  We've got termites.  And termites, of course, must be dealt with immediately; it only gets more expensive the longer you delay the problem.  The termite treatment cost us $958 paid immediately.

They also offered us three payment plans: $88.29 a month for one year, $55.85 a month for two years, or $46.12 for three years.  If we could not have paid up front, we would have paid an extra $101.48 for one year, $382.40 for two years, or $702.32 for three years.  To put those numbers in perspective, it would be better to pay the same amount monthly on a credit card with a 22% APR for the one year plan, 35% APR for the two year plan, or 42% APR for the three year plan.  I was absolutely gobsmacked when I ran those numbers.  In most states, it's not even legal for credit cards to charge that much.

Our EF is running very low, but December is a three paycheck month for us and we are going to scrape by.  For people unable to come up with that kind of money, with no credit cards or ones that are maxed out, well, Orkin is forcing them to dig themselves into an even bigger hole.  I'm glad I'm not an Orkin representative - I don't think that I could, in good conscience, offer this to people with no other options but to see their houses fall to pieces around them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Giving More of What I Have, and Less of What I Don't

I didn't end up selling enough to cover my shortfall, let alone send any more coats to Afghan children.  I've decided not to send anything else.  I read One Simple Act: Discovering the Power of Generosity from the library this week, and it really helped me to take a look at my giving patterns and realize that I don't need to spend more money than I have giving to other people - if God needs money somewhere, and chooses me to be the instrument of giving it, it will happen if I relax and let Him do it.  What I need to focus on is the non-monetary giving to the people around me that I have often let fall by the wayside - listening to, affirming, and helping the people that I see every day or every week. 
Debbie Macomber also strongly suggests a gratitude and prayer journal.  Inspired by her example, I resolved to begin one immediately!  Of course, that was last week, and I am still making excuses as to why I haven't started.  No more procrastination though - I am off to get started right now.